From Baker Street to Loch Ness: Billy Wilder takes a trip with Sherlock Holmes

I am not usually moved to write here about new DVD or BluRay releases, but in the case of a new release, on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I decided to make an exception. Those who’ve read me on Wilder before will know that I am not one of the writer-director’s greatest admirers. For all his expertise and talent, I find his work generally more interesting for the writing than for the direction, and his best known titles I tend to find either a little airless and mechanical in their clockwork precision (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd or The Apartment, for example), or even a little crass (the films with Monroe, Kiss Me, Stupid ). Then, too, there are a few films he made which would be of little interest at all if his name were not attached to them. So while I recognise Wilder’s importance, I do find much of his work a touch overrated. There are two titles, however, for which I have a great deal of admiration, and which I’ve revisited often over the years. The first is 1951’s Ace in the Hole, where Wilder allowed his famous cynicism to run riot. In the second, the aforementioned The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), he went to the other extreme, enabling his romanticism to come to the fore.

After previews of a cut lasting over three hours persuaded the studio executives that the film’s length needed to be considerably reduced, a reluctant Wilder and his editor Ernest Walter came up with a version which ran 125 minutes. Given the initial response of both the public and many of the critics, perhaps they needn’t have bothered: those expecting a spoof found it insufficiently funny, those expecting a straightforward mystery found it insufficiently serious, and those expecting a film entirely faithful to Conan Doyle’s writings presumably found it lacking in all kinds of ways. As Neil Sinyard notes, in an excellent new interview filmed for the Eureka BluRay release, people were simply not judging the film for what it was, which was something far more complex, more sophisticated and more rewarding than any spoof or generic mystery.

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Billy Wilder on set with Colin Blakely and Robert Stephens

For Wilder and his writing partner I A L (‘Izzy’) Diamond were exploring – in a thoroughly affectionate, respectful, intelligent and entertaining way – the very myth of Sherlock Holmes; in particular, the film attempts to explain just how this man might have become ‘a thinking machine’. The ingenious story (or stories – originally the narrative included four ‘cases’, but two were removed during the cutting) deploys Watson to some extent as a surrogate for the audience: as a chronicler of Holmes’ successes focused on his remarkable intellectual capacities, he has created the image not of a rounded man but of the perfect sleuth, whereas the events (the hitherto untold case histories) depicted in the film lead the good doctor – and the viewer – to a greater, less blinkered understanding of his friend’s emotional life.

The result is a film that succeeds gloriously on many levels: as a terrific yarn; as a portrait of an era about to undergo great technological, military and social change (with Holmes, perhaps, already something of an anachronism); as an engaging tale of friendship between two very different men; as the subtlest of love stories; and as an astute and touching psychological study of a disenchanted romantic whose defence mechanisms manifest themselves through a deeply ironic cynicism and a prioritising of the life of the mind. With superb performances by Robert Stephens (Holmes), Colin Blakely (Watson) and a lovely supporting cast that includes Christopher Lee (Mycroft), Irene Handl (Mrs Hudson) and Geneviève Page as the woman who calls on Holmes for help; a terrific score by Miklós Rózsa (much of it sourced from his supremely lyrical second violin concerto); brilliant production design by the great Trauner; and wonderfully atmospheric camerawork by Christopher Challis, the film is a delight from start to finish and, for me, Wilder’s richest, most fully imaginative and most moving film.

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Christopher Lee and Geneviève Page

Bur surely, some of you will be saying, it’s incomplete. Well, yes and no. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes works incredibly well as it is. We’ll never know what it would have been like had it been allowed to run, as originally intended, somewhere between three and four hours. Still, the extras on the Eureka release include deleted scenes: some offer the image but no sound (hence the subtitles as shown in the picture below from ‘The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners’); some offer audio only; and others are assembled from a mix of sound, still photos and script pages. (I myself was extremely thrilled and fascinated to find and trawl through these, though Jonathan Coe, who is far better informed than I about the film and its history, tells me some of these elements have been available on earlier discs of the film; you can read more from him on the movie here.) Each scene in itself, as far as one can tell from the materials on offer, is wholly in keeping with the tone and content of the film as released; that doesn’t mean, however, that the longer version would necessarily have been more satisfying than the 125-minute cut. More, after all, isn’t always better. So I for one find it impossible to judge whether we should regard what happened as some sort of cinematic tragedy. All I can say is that – in my opinion at any rate, and it’s an opinion shared by more and more people as the years pass – what we are left with remains some sort of masterpiece.

Sherlock subs

 

The BluRay of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes will be released on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series on 22nd January.

2 thoughts on “From Baker Street to Loch Ness: Billy Wilder takes a trip with Sherlock Holmes

  1. Dear Mr Andrew,
    I’m sure you’ll remember when cinema was also an art-form, as opposed to just being a product. I remember a quiet Wednesday afternoon at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, when I probably was the only person watching Stroheim’s ‘Greed’ – wonderful!
    Much more recently I noticed that the BFI Collection doesn’t have Fellini’s last film, ‘E la nave va’, a film, as you’ll know, about the nature of cinema itself.
    Could this be remedied in any way? I did contact the Collection, but it’s likely that (through no fault of their own) they don’t know the significance of this film in the art of cinema.
    Many thanks for your wonderful introduction to the DVD of Kiarostami’s amazing ‘Ten’.
    I look forward to your thoughts about the Fellini film.
    With best wishes,
    Robert

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    1. Dear Robert,

      Thanks for your kind words about my introduction to ‘Ten’. And yes, I do remember when cinema was an art-form; happily, it sometimes still is!

      Regarding Fellini, I am not sure whether E la nave va is available on DVD or BluRay – it used to be, I think. It is the kind of film that either Eureka or Arrow might consider releasing, as they have both, I think, put out Fellini films. Any kind of re-release is, of course, largely down to availability of materials and rights.

      That film is not, in fact, Fellini’s final film; his last was Voices of the Moon, which I believe may be due for an imminent release. Sadly, in my opinion (based solely on seeing it when it premiered in Cannes) it is far from Fellini at his best.

      I hope this is useful.

      Best, Geoff

      Like

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